A group of Rootin-Tootin Alpacas breed sires show some curiosity while being photographed. Front three, from left, Simba, Silver Hawk and Sylvester. In back are Archer and Zepher. The five, along with their female cohorts, will be on display at this weekend's fourth annual Alpacafest.

About six or seven years ago, Connie Root was watching a television documentary about alpacas. She was so captivated by the show’s subject animals that she convinced her husband, Jim, that they should get some alpacas of their own.

The couple did a bit of research by visiting a few Missouri alpaca farms and purchased a couple of males and a couple of females.

Fast forward to 2010. The Roots are in year six of running Rootin-Tootin Alpacas on their Highway B property east of Houston.

With a total of 30 animals, booths at three craft mall locations in Branson, a retail store on their home property and an annual festival that attracts hundreds of visitors, the Roots have seen what started as a fascination with a TV topic blossom into a pretty big deal.

“When we started this,” Jim said, “we never envisioned that it would become what it is now.”

Resembling llamas in appearance but considerably smaller, alpacas are native to South America’s Andes Mountains of southern Peru, northern Bolivia, Ecuador and northern Chile. They are kept in herds that graze in level fields at altitudes ranging from 11,500 to 16,000 feet above sea level.

Unlike llamas, alpacas were not bred to be beasts of burden but rather for their fur, called “fleece” or “fiber.” Like wool, fiber is used for making knitted and woven items. But it’s known to be about four times as effective in providing warmth, doesn’t cause allergic reactions and lasts longer.

During a typical year, the Root herd grows by about five cria (the name for a baby alpacas and llamas). In fact, one cria arrived in Houston the morning of Sept. 15 and another a few days earlier. Breeding is usually timed to result in spring or fall births, usually in April and September.

While alpacas on Ozark farms (other area farms can be found in Roby and Willow Springs) no doubt think the winters here are pretty mild, the summer heat can be an issue.

But in general, these are hardy animals that are gentle and fun to be around. The Roots, now married for 37 years, feed their alpacas two different kinds of pellets, one purchased at a dealer in Summersville and the other at MFA in Houston.

Shearing is done each year in April. This year, the Rootin-Tootin operation sent a whopping 55 pounds of fiber to a processing plant in Phillipsburg, Kan. When it returns to Houston, Connie spins into yarn and eventually weaves it into a saleable item.

The end results might be a shawl, a rug or a pair of socks, but in any case the smooth feel is distinctly alpaca.

Jim, also the City of Houston Park and Recreation director and pastor at the Church of God of Prophecy in Houston, calls himself the Rootin-Tootin “barn guy.” He said he is amazed by how much his wife does to maintain the sales end of the business.

“I take care of the animals,” he said, “but she does everything else.”

Connie even took care of “everything else” during a recent bout with cancer and a subsequent chemotherapy regimen.

“She did lots of spinning, weaving and puking,” Jim said. “But it really gave her something to fall back on and really helped her through a hard time.”

Little fiber is wasted in the whole process. What is not up to par for garments (such as what is removed from alpacas’ legs – termed “throw away”) can still be used to make rugs or line the bottom of plant containers.

Fiber can be dense or silky and each kind might be better suited for a certain type of final product. Breeding can be done to promote the birth of dense or silky cria, or cria of select color. The Rootin-Tootin herd has not disappointed in terms of providing good fiber.

“We’ve tried to get the best from both areas,” Jim said. “So far we’ve been very fortunate.”

Size does matter in alpaca farming. The biggest male in the Root fold was also one of the year’s biggest producers of fiber, contributing nine pounds.

Getting into the business doesn’t require too huge an initial investment and a relatively small piece of real estate will suffice.

The Roots’ property is in the neighborhood of 2 ½ acres in size and is fenced off into three main sections separating females, younger males and older herd sire males. They recently sold a “package deal” of six animals for $3,000 to some folks just starting out.

“And you don’t have to kill an alpaca to get its product,” Connie said.

Like the horse industry, the alpaca field took a big hit in price per animal a few years back.

“Four years ago, $3,000 would have paid for maybe two animals,” Jim said.

Both of the Roots say that – like the woman farmer on the documentary Connie saw that fateful day – they would be keeping alpacas now even in there was no financial benefit.

“They’re so unique and loveable,” Connie said, “it’s to the point now where we would be doing this even if we didn’t make anything from it.”

The fourth annual Rootin-Tootin Alpacafest is set for thisSaturday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

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